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Would a Trail Blazers Trade Tarnish Portland's "Player-First" Reputation?

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Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey and his front office staff have worked hard to establish and maintain a "player-first" reputation in Portland. Would a potential trade shake up the balance of the team's culture?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

When the season began, the Portland Trail Blazers were expected to be aggressive sellers leading up to tomorrow's trade deadline. The merits of dealing nearly every player on the roster, from borderline star CJ McCollum to bench-warmer Chris Kaman, have been discussed.

But one player's name never emerged as a trade candidate, in either rumor or hypothetical: Damian Lillard. His on-court performance has made him into a top-15 or top-20 player in the league, but intangibles have elevated Lillard's esteem to true "untouchable" status from the perspective of the Portland fans and front office.

Blazer's Edge managing editor Dave Deckard explains:

Lillard and McCollum are franchise darlings. They're the heart of the roster. Moving either one would be a public relations disaster unless the return was overwhelming. Nobody the Blazers bring in will provide substantially more victories, short of LeBron James or Anthony Davis. The franchise isn't trading in wins right now, but hope. Who provides more hope than McCollum and Lillard do? The right move isn't out there yet.

As Dave suggests, the reasons Lillard won't be traded extend past his basketball greatness. Lillard has thrived as the leader and voice of the 2016 Portland Trail Blazers. Teammates have given Lillard rave reviews since he "inherited" the team this summer, and chemistry has been cited as crucial to the Blazers' success. Jason Quick has compared Lillard's natural leadership ability to that of esteemed veteran Scottie Pippen.

Lillard is also highly marketable. He has starred in commercials with NBA advertising luminaries like Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett. He's been the featured player for Adidas' basketball line of shoes and has his own budding music career. Dame is as commercially hot as any Blazer has ever been.

Unlike other NBA stars who have crossed over into mainstream media, Lillard has not pushed for a trade to a higher profile city, like Los Angeles or New York. Instead, Lillard has embraced Portland and its fans. He has chosen to wear "the letter O" to connect the state of Oregon to his personal history with Oakland, California and Ogden, Utah. He has maintained repeatedly that he wishes to spend his entire career with the Blazers.

To Blazers fans, Lillard has become "our guy" more than any All-Star caliber player in team history (with all due respect to Brandon Roy who flamed out so quickly). Past stars including Clyde Drexler, Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Rasheed Wallace have all left the team in a lurch. With that kind of franchise history, Blazer faithful can't help but enthusiastically embrace Lillard as he has willingly, enthusiastically, and joyfully put the franchise on his back.

That being said, the rightfully deserved infatuation with Lillard for all of his non-basketball attributes has had a tangible impact on the team's personnel actions. GM Neil Olshey signed Lillard to a maximum contract last summer even though it effectively cost the Blazers $10 million in salary cap space this summer. The symbolic reassurance of uniting the team with its young superstar and reassuring fans that Lillard was fully committed to the Blazers was deemed worthy of immediate satisfaction, financial implications be damned.

But going forward, Olshey may not have the luxury of continuing to make personnel decisions for intangible reasons. The team has overachieved beautifully this season, thanks in large part to chemistry and locker room stability, but is still several major improvements away from becoming a Western Conference Finals contender. They are in desperate need of a rim-protecting center and a play-making wing who can also serve as an above average perimeter defender. It's conceivable, if not likely, that half the players on the current roster will be gone by summer 2018 in order to facilitate these improvements. The Blazers will have some hard choices to make in the very near future.

Despite that, Lillard is publicly urging that Olshey keep the team together this season.

The implication is that the current players would rather continue fighting for a playoff spot this year with an intact roster, even if it means passing on a deal that incrementally improves the Blazers' long term outlook.

Ultimately, that puts Olshey in a serious bind. He has commodified chemistry and locker room camaraderie to great positive effect this season. He has empowered Lillard as the focal point of the team and the Blazers have defied preseason expectations as a consequence. But what if Gerald Henderson for a first round pick is on the table right now? What if another team is interested in taking Meyers Leonard off their hands for a decent return on investment? It's one thing to make chemistry decisions based on Damian Lillard, but it's another to resist trading a player like Henderson or Leonard.

If Olshey does decide to make a trade that hinders the current team, but improves it in the long run, he must sell the move to a locker room full of players who have played their hearts out all season. This becomes even more difficult given that the front office has made a point of encouraging its players to win as many games as possible amidst calls to tank and retain the first round draft pick. Can that be reconciled with a trade that sacrifices a playoff berth in the name of long-term incremental growth?

Houston GM Daryl Morey provides a cautionary tale of the negative effects of mercilessly trading players with no consideration of long-term chemistry factors:

The Rockets did not just lose Lin either. The organization's clearly lost credibility with big-time players.

Dragic shows no interest in a Rockets return after Chris Bosh shows no real interest in the Rockets (outside of using them as pre-blood clot leverage with Miami) after Kyle Lowry shows absolutely no interest in a Rockets reunion. Good players are running from an organization that's shown little respect for anyone not named Harden or Howard on its own roster. Who's surprised by that?

When you treat players like nothing but disposable numbers, they leap to find their numbers elsewhere.

Olshey will have to walk an especially perilous tightrope as he looks to improve the team in the coming months without sacrificing the "players first" reputation that the franchise seems to have built.

Beyond this trade deadline, Lillard's "untouchable" status may also prevent the Blazers from participating in blockbuster trades. Lillard, because of the intangibles already mentioned, is more likely than anybody else on the roster to bring back a player that exceeds his individual on-court ability. As a top-15 player he could, theoretically, be swapped for a top-10 player with the intangibles making up for an on-court talent disparity

Despite that, most trade ideas for other All-Stars or blue-chip prospects swirling around the Blazers have centered on McCollum. But if surrendering Lillard instead really could net DeMarcus Cousins or Nerlens Noel plus a No. 3 overall pick to pair with McCollum, wouldn't it be worth it from a purely basketball perspective? McCollum has the potential to be a top-20 player in his own right and pairing him with a top-10 center, or a defensive monster and a top-5 pick, could be more successful than a McCollum/Lillard starting backcourt.

However, Lillard's status as an integral part of the Blazer identity will necessarily preclude those opportunities. He has become as much a part of the Blazers as Dwyane Wade has become part of the Miami Heat or Kobe Bryant part of the Los Angeles Lakers. He gives the BlazerManiacs hope for the future like nobody since Drexler. How do you trade a guy like that, even if you have a ready-made on-court replacement like McCollum? The obvious answer from Olshey has been that you don't.

The fallout of Lillard's status, however, is that the other top assets on the team must necessarily become more expendable going forward in order to acquire players that fill key holes in the roster. Again, this clashes with the reputation that the team has built, and will test Olshey as an executive and Lillard's ability to hold together a locker room culture.

With all that being said, in the eyes of most, Olshey has made an undeniably correct decision choosing loyalty over flexibility with Lillard. The fourth year point guard is a bona fide leader who demonstrably contributes to team chemistry and can lead a locker room while simultaneously putting a stellar product on the floor. He is worth whatever is lost in unlikely trades and a few million dollars in cap space. But, over time, Olshey is going to have to make repeated decisions to balance chemistry, talent, and salary that potentially undermine the culture that Lillard and the Blazers have built. Will Olshey be able to walk the tightrope successfully?

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